Seventeen women in Australia have lost their lives at the hands of partners or ex-partners already this year.
Trigger warning: This post deals with family violence. Some readers may find the article distressing.
One woman is hospitalised every three hours from domestic violence.
As a society, we know this is unacceptable. As women, we grieve for the suffering of our sisters. As individuals, we want action taken and lives protected.
But these grim statistics also make us feel helpless. Because we seem to be witnessing an epidemic of violence that is getting worse not better. And solutions that are discussed often appear complex, distant or beyond the reach of individuals.
This is why calls for a national Royal Commission into family violence are gaining momentum. We want the scale of the problem acknowledged at the highest levels of our society and we want our institutions to come together to testify to the scale of the issue and to agree on a cure for this crisis.
But we need to think carefully about whether a Royal Commission would truly help us confront and deal with this issue. Royal Commissions can certainly be powerful instruments for revealing the truth. They can force open powerful or closed institutions. They can compel individuals to speak the truth. And they can help unravel complex mysteries.
So what would a national Royal Commission into family violence reveal? It would undoubtedly highlight the extent of the issue. And it would give women who have experienced violence a forum in which they could be recognised and acknowledged. But it may tell us shockingly little.
The terrible reality is that family violence is an open wound in our society. We do not need judicial powers to expose the extent of the problem. We do not need months and years of testimony to reveal how society is failing to deal with this problem.
We know what the issues are in Australia. We know where our systems break down. We are collecting better data each year on the scale and scope of the problem. And we have the expertise available to solve it.
What I think we are missing is commitment. The commitment to hear and protect women who have experienced violence. The commitment to provide the necessary resources to our support systems. And the commitment from across society to solve the problem.
We will never solve family violence unless the women who report domestic and family violence are believed and protected. Those who step forward to report violence must never be allowed to be worse off for their actions. Nothing will change while a woman can be more at risk from reporting their violent partner than not reporting him.
And when a woman experiences violence, there needs to be a service system that can support her, including:
- Helplines that she can call
- Safe and flexible accommodation that can house her and her family
- Access to legal advice and support
- Access to health services and advice
- A justice system that responds quickly, with a victim-centred approach
While Australia has most of these services in place, they are desperately short of funding. Accommodation services can’t cope with the numbers of women seeking support. Counselling services cannot offer long-term care because of the uncertainty created by short-term funding contracts. And courts can impose significant time delays in the processing of domestic violence claims due to inadequate resources.
This is what the experts are telling us. The women and men who run our front line services, the police and legal centres, are clear that we need more resources, not more reviews.
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We know the problem. And we know how to improve the situation. Do we need to wait several years for a Royal Commission to report before we take action?
And a Royal Commission also leads us to look primarily at institutional and governmental failings. Of course, we need to hold governments responsible. Government has an obligation to provide long-term, sustainable funding for core services for women experiencing violence. Services should be reviewed for efficiency and outcome delivery, but not be forced to reapply for funding annually and left with uncertainty for months.
But a Royal Commission may blind us to the responsibilities we all face. The private sector has a role to play. In most workplaces in this country are women who have experienced violence, and men who have perpetrated violence. The private sector cannot dismiss this as something that happens ‘in the home’. It should be investing in the prevention programs, should be supporting local refuges in the communities where you operate, should ensure that our workplaces are safe places for women to disclose their experiences, seek support and be protected from violence
And we can all do more personally. We can help prevent violence against women before it occurs. We can refuse to be bystanders to violence, harassment or male domination. We can help stamp out acts of micro-aggression and sexism that are still widely tolerated in our workplaces and communities and that can escalate and feed into domestic violence.
And we can be more empathetic. We can educate ourselves on how women can become trapped. We can teach ourselves that there are often very powerful answers to the question ‘why doesn’t she just leave’, based around complex issues of family care, love, financial dependence and inadequate support. And we can remind ourselves that questioning the motives of the victim, rather than the offender, is never productive.
I know that I was among many Australians who teared up when Rosie Batty was awarded Australian of the Year. She has shown amazing strength in turning the loss of her son into a commitment to raising awareness across our country about the legal, policy and attitudinal factors that let her down.
We need to be inspired by her example. We cannot merely be helpless in the face of violence. We cannot push the problem down the road or demand others to find answers. Women who have experienced violence have spoken. The experts have spoken. Now we must act.
This International Women’s Day, consider making a contribution to UN Women’s work around the world to eliminate violence against women through prevention programs and of course, through the provision of support services. Your individual contribution will make a difference.
Julie McKay is the Executive Director of the Australian National Committee for UN Women.